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Liondell Pratt prepares for the dinner service with other employees at Falk Dining Hall on Feb. 6.

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

Workers in Falk Dining Commons in Steinhardt Hall come in to work each day ready to serve students at Penn Hillel, but — behind the scenes — they say their dedication is taken for granted.

These dining workers, who have worked at Penn for decades, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that they want the University to fully integrate them into Penn Dining. Unlike other dining halls at the University, Falk Dining Hall workers are not directly hired by Penn. Rather, they are employed by Bon Appétit Management Company.

Penn has utilized Bon Appétit as its food service contractor since 2009. Falk Dining Hall worker Troy Harris said that even though students view Hillel's dining hall as an integrated part of the Penn community, he does not feel that the University truly cares about their well-being and is unsure about how to receive equal union representation.

“I want to be fair treated, and I want equal because I served equal,” Harris, who has prepped, cooked, and cleaned at Falk Dining Hall each day for the past 23 years, said. "We smile even though we're underpaid. We do a great service even though we're underpaid. When is it time for us to stand?"

Falk Dining Hall is located in Steinhardt Hall, a building owned by Penn Hillel which leases part of its first floor to Penn. Penn Dining subcontracts the labor for Falk Dining Hall to Bon Appétit who handles the day-to-day operations of the dining hall.

In an emailed statement from a Bon Appétit Management Company representative, the company said that there is an "open-door policy" for any employees and their on-site management and HR leaders to present workplace concerns or complaints.

"If, at any time, the employee feels as if there isn't resolution, there is an established grievance process that is available to them that has been agreed upon by both [their] union and Bon Appétit," the representative wrote.

Falk Dining Hall worker Marti Bates – who primarily swipes in students for every meal – said that while she has seen problems with how Bon Appétit has managed its workers, she places more blame on Penn for not treating all workers the same, regardless of contractors' decisions.

Penn Business Services Director of Communications and External Relations Barbara Lea-Kruger wrote in a statement to the DP that there are many avenues for employees – regardless of if they are employed directly by Penn or by Bon Appétit – to raise concerns with their management. 

"For serious issues or if an employee feels that their problems are not being addressed, there is a formal process that has been agreed upon by the unions and Bon Appétit or Penn which an employee can also use," Lea-Kruger wrote. "Employees are apprised of and encouraged to use these opportunities."

Earlier this year, an employee who had worked at Falk since 1999 fell ill and was forced to take a leave of absence, according to Falk Dining Hall worker Elijah Wingate. He said that workers were disheartened to hear that after more than 20 years of service, his request for medical aid from the Family and Medical Leave Act was denied because he “lacked enough hours for the year.”

Wingate said that the lack of support from Penn frustrated staffers who felt it was wrong for a worker who committed two decades of service to receive no support during his time of need. This prompted Wingate, Harris, and other workers to call out Penn for what they saw as clear indifference toward them.

“They threw [him] out like trash,” Wingate said.

Three years ago, when Bates and her husband, co-worker Lonidell Pratt, welcomed a new child to their family, Pratt said that his wife was put in a position where she would lose her job or miss out on significant pay if she didn't come back after two weeks of maternity leave. 

Bates said that she received no compensation during her maternity leave, and Pratt said his job was put in jeopardy because he had to constantly commute from work and home to check on their children.

The Bon Appétit Management Company representative wrote that the collective bargaining agreement for hourly employees "allows for up to twelve weeks of maternity leave at the employee’s discretion, which is compliant with the Family Medical Leave Act and Philadelphia Pregnancy Leave Law."

Bates said that she felt like she would have to rely on her vacation hours and personal hours if she had taken the twelve-week leave, and she said that it would have been an unpaid leave, which was a sacrifice she could not make.

“I took off my hospital gown and two weeks later had to get back to work,” Bates said.

The most recent collective bargaining agreement between Bon Appétit and workers was in 2021, almost a decade after these same Falk workers partnered with student activists in early 2013 to demand union representation. After months of organizing, Bon Appétit workers at Hillel officially gained representation from the Teamsters Local 929 in April 2013. 

Initially, workers said that they were optimistic about this representation and believed that Penn was finally doing its part to enact necessary changes for the workers. 

However, as time passed, Wingate said that workers' experiences have worsened. Now, he said that dining hall workers at Hillel have seen their specific titles reduced to one general title – for example, "cook" – while they are still required to fulfill other tasks like cleaning, prepping, and working the cash register.

Teamsters Local 929 did not respond to an immediate request for comment.

Wingate said that Falk Dining Hall workers were asked to return to campus and package meals for virtual students in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that it did not feel like they were considered essential workers, adding that they received no COVID-19 relief pay, were not given financial compensation, and when they asked for aid, they were given vouchers for local food drives.

Workers employed by Bon Appétit were also left in the dark about Penn's plans to reopen dining halls after students were set to return to campus in 2020, according to Wingate.

“We give the company everything and get nothing," Wingate said. "We are treated as 'at-will' employees." 

Harris said that one of the workers' most pressing demands is inclusion in the AFSCME Local 54 union. Previously, the DP reported that over 100 Penn Dining workers are unionized under Local 54. Harris added that workers at Falk Dining Hall want the same benefits as other Penn Dining workers.

Wingate agreed, adding that all the small things that workers face on a day-to-day basis add up. He said that workers want access to Pottruck Health and Fitness Center, and they want to see their dedication to the University rewarded with compassion when going through hardships.

Lea-Kruger wrote that the terms of employment for Bon Appétit employees are governed by their collective bargaining agreement that was agreed upon earlier. This includes their job titles, wages, and benefits.

"As there are two separate unions, the CBAs are not identical," Kruger wrote. "However, in each case, the CBAs were mutually agreed upon by the Union and either the University, AFSME, or Bon Appétit, Teamsters, and ratified by a vote by union members."

Students told the DP that Falk Dining Hall is one of their favorite places to get food on campus, and they said  the staff plays a significant role in that. 

"I like eating at [Falk Dining Hall] because the staff is the friendliest, it tends to be less crowded, conditions are nicer, and people reciprocate the kindness," College sophomore Nathan Zhang said.

Harris said that he loves the students that come to the dining hall each day, but as he watches Penn develop new programs and build new infrastructure, it is striking to him that he and his co-workers remain stuck in what they view as a stagnant workplace. 

“Everything is elevating but us,” Harris said.